One Day I’ll Write When I’m Through

A couple of months ago I sent out an essay titled “The Grave Garden” and a couple of weeks ago the essay was rejected for publication. I started writing the essay three years ago and tacked on the latest expansion earlier this year. The piece wanders. As it is, the essay is what I first supposed it might be, written only for me. I started writing about the death of infant Kaiden, my friends’ firstborn, and the years after when I was surprised by how sad and angry I remained. I remember writing the first draft. Parts were jagged, like you might snag on an inappropriate observation or emotion.

Right now I’m not certain why I committed that first draft to a file. I was already writing about the Senger family, their loss and second son, the community that walked alongside. Their grief would surface in me throughout that first year after Kaiden died, but what also came was the anger I wanted better to understand. What I’ve noticed about my more personal essays is that anything I finally type is something I’ve written by hand before, more than once. I love Natalie Goldberg’s idea that writers compost their ideas, turning over the soil until it’s rich enough to grow the right words. “The Grave Garden” essay as it is, even called finished, is likely one more part of the compost, one more turn of the soil until I know just how to talk about

what I really want to say, which is:

(I just spent ten minutes rewording a few sentences to whittle the years of this lesson to something that makes me seem more wise than ugly). Let’s try this again:

I didn’t want to be a mom more than anything in the world. And when I watched Christie, a woman who wanted to be a mom more than anything in the world, grieve the death of her son, her loss underscored the gain I held. I condemned myself for not wanting motherhood, for having to work so hard at enjoying the role, for the effort of love.

Before Kaiden died I wrote a couple of essays about contentment. Envy, comparison and finding contentment. I like to believe I really was on the way to figuring out how to enjoy motherhood, all by myself. I ran, journaled, listened to podcast sermons, laid on the floor to pray, confessed, begged for joy. I was too good at recognizing my lack. If I’d been a little dumber or kinder to myself, I probably wouldn’t have worried my initial fear or ambivalence about parenting meant always and forever selfishness. Also before Kaiden died, my parents’ neighbor Rose died weeks after a cancer diagnosis, leaving her husband and eight year old son. Rose’s death shocked my apathy toward marriage and parenting. I was writing a lot about how much a fight it is to just be where you are, to yield to the difficult and boring work of loving a husband and small children, when Rose was diagnosed. Without knowing it, she celebrated her last Christmas. Without knowing it, she welcomed her last new year. And she would not see spring. The morning I learned Rose died, I stood in the shower crying for her son, but also crying for her because no matter the frame of faith and a better place, she was missing out on what I once wished away.

So “The Grave Garden” contains different sorrows. The loss suffered by Kaiden’s parents. My tangential grief for a different kind of loss, suffering what I’d missed having: a first full love of motherhood. “The Grave Garden” tries to make sense of my interaction with the Senger family’s loss and my parallel sorrow. While all the threads belong together, the essay shows me deciphering my emotions and responses in way that feels a little too raw. There is not a tidy way to write any of what I am writing in that piece, but I respect the story enough to find a way to tell it well.

I just finished Educated by Tara Westover. She journaled all the way through her wild growing up years in rural Idaho, all the way through her sense of inadequacy. She learned how to say the truth plainly in the pages of a notebook. And then, much later, she put her experiences together in a memoir that talks intimately about tragic and difficult moments. At no point in the narrative does the reader wonder if Westover is just figuring out what she needs to survive her family, to thrive away from Idaho, to pursue meaningful work she couldn’t have imagined a decade before. While she walks us through her realizations, while we watch her grow, we trust she tells us her story from a place that is through – maybe still in the middle on some days, but mostly secure in her present place.

Perhaps drafting and revising “The Grave Garden” stood in for what I should have done, which is go to therapy. It’s upsetting to write hard words in my own hand. To say to myself what hurts. Really, I think I could have done a few sessions, whacked my way through a couple of big issues, been lifted more quickly than three years of writing about my grief for the Sengers, my grief for myself, the anger. I wrote from the middle. I wasn’t through much of anything when I started drafting the essay. I wanted to be through, I wanted to understand what we learn from such tragedy, what forgiveness I might extend myself, I wanted to know I could be a good mom even if I hadn’t wanted motherhood more than anything in the world. I very much started “The Grave Garden” in the middle and its revision is ungainly but I don’t negate the need for the work. How else might I learn to write about difficult things except to write about difficult things?

(994 words)

Starting Over

I read this article in Slate about the current glut of first-person narratives online. Two or three years ago I started revising several of my essays about marriage and parenting. Most were confessional and tended to turn didactic at their conclusions. Some were pieces I still value because writing them was enough. But some were pieces I wanted to immediately share – and did, with a workshop or friend. And then I wanted a wider audience.

It’s the start of another semester teaching creative writing, which means I guide students as they begin or re-establish their writing practice. Which means I feel a little new to writing practice too when we talk about Natalie Goldberg’s rules and give ourselves permission to write anything. Anything in your notebooks, I tell my classes. And later, we’ll talk about how to pull poetry and narrative from those pages. Later, we’ll practice revision. And later, we’ll share.

But first, fill the pages. And fill the pages without an audience waiting to eat your story.

If I imagine an experience or emotion as a personal essay, I lose a little recklessness in my writing. Or I discount the value of writing it at all because who wants to read this junk? No one. So why write it?

I write the junk anyway. I need to relearn my writing practice. I tell my students to trust the process, they’ll be surprised what shows up, the honesty and depth, the gorgeous phrases, the fun stories. Trust the process, I say because I know most of my students will discover power and beauty in writing until their hands hurt. I want that again. I’ve expected too much from my writing. I’ve been greedy. I didn’t just write my heart out, I wrote my heart out and wanted you to read it and like it. I read that Slate piece thinking I would’ve whored my writing a couple of years ago because all I wanted was an audience. And now?

I still want publication. But I also want to learn the craft so when the time comes for my work to land in print, you’ll read it because it’s good, not just because the title is clickbait. I don’t really know how to write right now. So I’m starting over with my notebook, writing anything and pushing the wider audience away.

Try This: Sweet Syntax

I love Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. The following is one of my favorite writing exercises from her book (my paraphrase):

1. Find three or four lines from your writing practice. The sentences do not have to be brilliant.
2. Copy those three or four lines at the top of a new page.
3. Picture each word as a wooden block. For a quarter or a third of the page, set one block next to another next to another. To keep yourself from the intrinsic impulse to make sense, try this: only glance at the top lines for your next word; be quick about it. Block block block. You will repeat the words from your three or four lines. Don’t worry about making it all come out even.
4. Now, this is the picky part. Add punctuation. Copy the block block block, adding punctuation to make visual sense.
5. Read aloud, with expression. Make auditory sense. Notice what role punctuation plays. Also note any fun phrases or images that inadvertently appeared.

Here’s mine:

I ran unplugged for only part of my run this morning, sometimes more distressed by what I may hear or what I may think – too distressed by what may come up to really want quiet.

unplugged part distressed what part I may quiet really want the by may hear or what what sometimes this for I the to by I more what distressed really up come hear think ran unplugged part this run may by I the think more what for I only this think what morning to think run part only unplugged up to run sometimes the distressed quiet may for may what hear may the want ran part by more quiet really or sometimes I only or may really

Whoa. If that doesn’t rattle your teeth.

Unplugged, part distressed, what part I? May quiet: really want by may hear or. What! What sometimes this for I the to? By I more what distressed really up come hear think; ran unplugged part this.Run may by I the think more what for I only! This think what morning to think run part only. Unplugged up to. Run sometimes the distressed quiet may – for may what hear? May the want ran part? By more quiet. Really or sometimes, I only or may really.

Language is less intimidating if we take time to play with it. Mess around with syntax. No one has to know but you.

Here And Now Weighed More

I decided to challenge myself in June and write daily from a prompt. I turned nearly every prompt into a response to my personal life, essentially journaling with the lightest of constraints.

Here and now I am became a go-to.

Sometimes it’s like that. Not every turn at the page becomes a start. I show up, more in the spirit of Natalie Goldberg, taking my writing practice as meditation. I open on the page. I repeat myself, trusting repetition is inherently valuable. Writing the same ___ allows me a different kind of practice, a refinement of my thoughts, beliefs, opinions, emotions: open to sway, argument and resolution.

When I am generous with myself, I take this repetition as hopeful. I am unfinished. And unfinished is a beautiful adjective. But when I am harsh with myself, that same repetition makes me impatient. After ___ years I am still writing about ___ ! Like, when will I learn, forgive, accept, repent, enjoy, heal, turn! All of that lands in my pages too, the frustration that I am still dealing with ___, even if in a new context.

Selfish ambition

Let me return to hope. I am unfinished. Let me take heart in the process.

Even this is a revisit of a familiar theme. I keep writing about refinement, waiting for the better expression. Perhaps all my writing around refinement adds up to the better expression, illustrating process.


June WP prompts weren’t a bust. On the whole, June just wasn’t a month of fun writing. It was a month of necessary writing. And I am grateful for a pen and notebook to ground me in the here and now.

Good Ol’ Goldberg

I first read Writing Down the Bones in my intro to creative writing class freshman year at university. I remember feeling like Natalie Goldberg just gave me permission to write about anything. In the years since, her book remains relevant to my writing practice and I use the work in the high school creative writing class I teach. Which means I reread or skim through once a semester; here, from the chapter “Writing Is Not a McDonald’s Hamburger”:

Let go of everything when you write, and try at a simple beginning with simple words to express what you have inside. It won’t begin smoothly. Allow yourself to be awkward. You are stripping yourself. You are exposing your life, not how your ego would like to see you represented, but how you are as a human being. And it is because of this that I think writing is religious. It splits you open and softens your heart toward the homely world.